If you attend a conference to stay on top of your profession, planning is the key to getting the most out of your expenditure of time and money.
Time and again, I’ll hear colleagues complaining about the quality of conference programming or presenters. At the same meeting, I’ll have come away with page upon page of notes and dozens of ideas I can implement the second I’m back in the office.
I have a system.
First, I look at my current clients, my current business, and decide what it would be helpful to know more about.
Second, I think through business projections –- where I’m planning to take the business or the likely needs of client prospects.
Third, I think of general knowledge and enjoyment: Is there something I want to know more about, just because?
Next I grab the conference program. Each time slot, I look for those priorities, in order. Then I use what I know about the presenters to break ties. I always list second and third choices, in case a speaker doesn’t show up or I happened to make a bad selection.
Find a 'Never-miss' Speaker
Long ago, I discovered that I could learn more from an excellent, knowledgeable presenter, no matter what the topic, than I could from a mediocre presenter on a desirable topic. As I attend more and more conferences, I discover more and more “never-miss” speakers: Vincent Covello, Jeff Herrington, Les Potter, Steve Crescenzo, Nancy Johnson, and many others.
The IABC International Conference program, for instance, notes the highest-rated speakers from the previous year. I’m sure other organizations do the same. What an incredible help!
Because of personal preference, I tend to skip case studies, which often contain good ideas of narrow applicability. And I avoid sessions where “the audience will get to share their ideas” like the plague. I’m spending valuable time and paying big bucks to hear from the speaker, who’d better be an expert, not the often-irrelevant ramblings of someone who knows less about the issue than I do.
If, after applying my system, I find a time slot or two with no obvious selection, I re-read the session and speaker descriptions carefully. The presenters write these things, so nuance makes a difference. Careful reading can turn up clues that weren’t obvious when I scanned the text the first time.
Unlike some colleagues, I don’t attend with a specific set of questions I want answered. I want to hear the best ideas and expertise and perspective of the speaker; he’s the expert; he should know the current state of the art, the current issues. If the presentation prompts a specific question, I’ll ask, or I’ll contact the speaker after the conference.
Never Stay in a Bad Session
One thing that’s kind of a tradition in IABC: Never stay in a bad session. If the speaker isn’t any good, if the information isn’t any good, leave. You’re paying too much money to be "courteous" to someone who isn’t meeting your needs; you’ve only missed a few minutes of your second choice, which is likely to be better.
Finally, I refuse to stay in a session if the speaker obviously isn’t going to talk about the material listed in the conference program. That program description is the only guide I have to how I’m going to spend my time and my money, and I don’t intend to waste either, just because the speaker either was arrogant or didn’t plan ahead. Failing to talk about the topic advertised is rude, and it happens more often than you might think.
Using this system, it’s rare that I come away from a conference disappointed. It takes a bit of pre-conference planning, sure, but with the investment I’m already making, a few minutes of planning seems a small price to pay for a consistently good result.